Crows of Chang'an Ave

10:31, January 13, 2010      

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Scientists and folklore try to explain the mysterious 'murders' along ancient street

Most evenings as the sun sinks over the horizon on Chang'an Avenue, a cacophony of "caws" can be heard echoing along the central Beijing shopping street as thousands of crows gather.

Wary shoppers along the historic avenue hurry along paths pasted with white droppings, spurred on by both the cold weather and the eerie congregation overhead.

By morning the crows will depart from their city home and fly to the outskirts of the city where they will spend the day scavenging shrubs, seeds and occasional small birds. As the sun falls, the birds once again return to their urban roost, only to repeat the process the next day.

They have been flocking to Chang'an Avenue every winter for almost 100 years, according to Zhang Zhengwen, a professor of zoology at Beijing Normal University and secretary of the Beijing Ornithological Society.

Students from the university have been surveying the crow population of Beijing for more than three years, said Zhang.

Their surveys revealed the Chang'an flock has a population of more than 2,000 crows.

"There are more than 10,000 crows in Beijing," he said. "There are at least three or four large flocks."

Other "murders", the term used to describe a flock of crows, include locations on Beijing Normal University's campus and Wukesong, though the concentrations of crows at these locations is not as large.

The students at Beijing Normal University are so fascinated with the birds that they have begun petitioning school administrators to adopt the crow as the school bird.

What draws the birds to Chang'an in such large numbers is cause for wide speculation and subject of folklore reaching as far back as the founding of Beijing.

"Anecdotes about crows have accompanied this city since it was built," said Zhao Xinru, a consultant for the Beijing Bird Watching Society. It is a hotly debated subject amongst birdwatchers and ornithologists, he said.

Zhang said one popular folktale surrounding the birds says the crows saved the life of Huang Taiji, the first emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) by shielding him from the enemy's sight. In return for their help, the emperor and his servants fed the birds as much meat and scraps as they could eat. Ever since then the crows have been attracted to the areas around the Forbidden City.

Though there are many explanations and superstitions about why the birds choose to roost where they do, Zhang offers a more scientific explanation.

"Because Chang'an Avenue is in the center of the city it is much warmer, which is why the birds are only there during the winter," he said, adding that the large poplar trees surrounding the Ministry of Commerce and Tongren Hospital make an ideal roosting area for the flock.

One Chang'an local, a pedicab driver surnamed Wu, who has watched the crows come and go for more than 10 years, disagreed with Zhang's theory.

When the weather gets too cold, the birds stop coming, he said, noting that they have been gone for almost half a month following the extreme cold that hit Beijing.

"Crows are extremely intelligent creatures, much more clever than humans," he said.

Wu said he thought the birds choose Chang'an because of the abundance of food in trashcans and dumps surrounding the area.

While the spectacle is of interest for passers-by, people working in the area find it more of a nuisance.

A spokesperson for Beijing Hospital, another of their favorite locations on Chang'an Avenue, said the constant cawing of the birds annoys patients.

She said crows are bad luck and she would rather they went away.

Many people believe that crows are a bad omen and people in the hospital need to think positively, she said.

In addition to giving a bad vibe, Zhang added that the birds also pose an uncomfortable threat to people passing through the avenue.

"If people walk through the area, they have to cautious not to get attacked by droppings," he said.

While crows tend to have the largest flocks, they are not the only social bird nesting in Beijing, Zhang said, noting a peculiar congregation of owls that have chosen the Temple of Heaven as their home.

Source: China Daily/Agencies
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